WASHINGTON — Education secretaries usually keep a low profile, in keeping with their agency’s backseat status to states and local districts, which control schools.
But there was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan one recent day, racing through Washington traffic in a black Chevrolet Suburban, sirens wailing to clear traffic on his 13-block trip to the National Public Radio studios for an hourlong call-in show that he crammed into his hectic schedule.
Mr. Duncan is a man in a hurry. He has far more money to dole out than any previous secretary of education, and he is using it in ways that extend the federal government’s reach into virtually every area of education, from pre-kindergarten to college.
“This is the most assertive secretary of education we’ve ever had,” said Carl Kaestle, an education historian at Brown University who has studied the federal role in 20th-century American schooling.
Mr. Duncan has run a $4 billion school-improvement competition that led many states to change education laws to reflect his prescriptions. This month, the department is distributing $3.5 billion for the overhaul of thousands of failing schools. Mr. Duncan has been shuttling frequently to Capitol Hill to outline plans for a rewriting of the main federal law on public schools.
In March, Congress terminated a huge, bank-based college loan program, replacing it with one run out of the Education Department, and redirecting $36 billion in bank subsidies into Pell grants for low-income students.
Now the administration has begun writing rules to ensure that students will not assume burdensome tuition debt for career training that is unlikely to land them well-paying jobs.
“This administration’s education vision is a very activist, expansive role for the federal government,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, who has watched education policies evolve in Washington for nearly 30 years. “We’re never going to be like France, where the education minister can look at his watch and tell you what every fourth grader is doing. But inevitably, with more federal education initiatives, more federal money, comes more strings, more federal control.”
Mr. Duncan’s ambitions have been underwritten by $100 billion in emergency education money Congress approved last year during the administration’s first weeks, more than doubling the department’s budget.
Mr. Duncan has encountered some resistance. Lobbyists for the private lenders howled at the restructuring of the college lending program. Teacher unions protested when President Obama responded to the dismissal of all teachers at a failing Rhode Island high school by saying, “There’s got to be a sense of accountability,” a sentiment that Mr. Duncan echoed, and that unions interpreted as an endorsement of mass firings.
The governor of Texas, Rick Perry, sat out the $4 billion “Race to the Top” competition, saying it could lead to federal intrusion into Texas classrooms.
But otherwise, Mr. Duncan has not seen much pushback as he has pressed his case.
In a speech last October, Mr. Duncan outlined his view of the proper federal role in education. He quoted President Lyndon B. Johnson, who funneled large amounts of federal money into public schools to help disadvantaged students, as saying Washington should be “a partner not a boss” of local school authorities. Mr. Duncan added his own twist, though. “I’m not willing to be a silent partner,” he said.
“We’re not going to stand idly by where you have populations that are being poorly served, where we are in fact perpetuating poverty and social failure,” he said last week in an interview in his office. “Our country can’t afford that.”
Washington should support reform, he said, by helping to set high standards, transform failing schools, reduce dropouts and increase college access.
Not all Obama administration initiatives have expanded federal power. Its proposal for rewriting No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era law, would give most schools greater flexibility, while requiring drastic remedies for the worst.
Education experts say Mr. Duncan’s boundless energy, his background as chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools, and his close relationship with the president have helped him expand the department’s role. All the new programs fit into what he calls a cradle-to-career education plan to help every student emerge with marketable job skills.
“The White House has really delegated education to Arne,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of an education research group in Washington who served as an assistant secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan. “He does not have the short rein so many previous secretaries did.”
Still, there are limits to how much the federal government can influence public schools, Mr. Finn said. It does not hire teachers, buy textbooks or decide which students will be held back. In recent decades, states and districts have paid more than 90 cents of every dollar spent on public schools.
“At the end of the day, the federal share of the education budget is not that big,” Mr. Finn said.
He noted that the share during this administration would rise to about 15 percent, from about 9 percent. “But they’re treating that 15 percent as if it were 37 percent, trying to get a huge amount of leverage,” he added.
Some critics say the administration is overreaching.
“It meddles more in K-12 because of No Child Left Behind; it meddles more in higher education,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, who was secretary of education for the first President George Bush. “And now it’s turning into one of the nation’s largest banks.”
“Their view is, if you can find it in the Yellow Pages, government should do it,” said Mr. Alexander, a vocal critic of the student loan takeover who nonetheless said he admired Mr. Duncan. “My view is, if you can find it in the Yellow Pages, government shouldn’t do it.”
The administration may have trouble maintaining its momentum in pushing through its agenda. The stimulus money behind many of its initiatives will soon run out. Many experts doubt that the overhaul of the No Child law will clear Congress any time soon, and expect a fight with career-training colleges over proposed new regulations. Even the $36 billion infusion is not enough to stabilize the Pell program for long. And the department’s very visibility may be exacting its own price.
A new survey by the Pew Research Center found distrust of government at its highest level in 30 years. Of all federal agencies, the department of education’s approval rating had fallen most sharply, to 40 percent from 61 percent in 1998. In fact, the department got the lowest rating of any federal agency, including the Internal Revenue Service. Mr. Duncan’s aides said the drop could reflect dissatisfaction with No Child Left Behind.
Mr. Duncan says he encounters no public opposition.
“Zero,” he said. “And as hard as we’re pushing everybody else to change, we’re pushing the department to change even more. There’s just an outpouring of support for the common-sense changes and the unprecedented investments we’re making.”